Bielo, “Promises of Place”

April 18, 2013

Bielo, James S. 2013. Promises of Place: A Future of Comparative U.S. Ethnography. North American Dialogue 16(1):1-11.

Excerpt: In this essay I capitalize on a convergence in some recent U.S. ethnography to explore the cultural power of place-making and the conceptual promises of ‘place.’ Reports of losing, forgetting, and otherwise being disconnected from place are legion in depictions of late modernity. Said (1979) called it a “generalized condition of homelessness” (18), Gupta and Ferguson (1992) described it as a “profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places” (9), and Appadurai (1996) termed it “deterritorialization” (49). The culprits of this anxiety in the U.S. are multiple. A post-industrial economy fuels constant mobility, creating highly flexible labor regimes and others that are not reliant on geographic locale. Expanding urbanization disrupts relationships to land, transforming farm acreage into ultra-planned exurbia. Neoliberal corporate infrastructures prize predictable familiarity over uniqueness in order to secure service industry profits. There are, as well, technological and media empires that can render the particularities of place irrelevant. We late moderns are said to struggle to maintain meaningful place attachments and places themselves struggle to be distinctive. We are increasingly uncertain of how to recover from our pandemic placeless-ness. Of course, this narrative is ideological; it contains truth and myth, history and nostalgia, is uncannily accurate for many and exaggerated for many others. Nonetheless, the threat of placeless-ness is an American social fact, very real for the discontents it generates. According to recent U.S. ethnography that addresses different cultural spheres – religion and food – this anxiety has also produced resistance. People are not simply internalizing erosion and loss, they are responding by actively cultivating senses of place. Regarding religion, I look to my own fieldwork with American evangelicals… Emerging evangelicals are not the only late modern Americans looking to place to fashion a better future. This essay ensues from a repeated observation about recent work in U.S. ethnography: first, in step with developing interests in the anthropology of food, ethnographers are writing about American food systems; and second, analyses of the sustainable food movement reveal a striking veneration of place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: